Why has the late John Hughes’s Planes, Trains & Automobiles stood the test of time — not just as one of the best holiday movies, but as a near-perfect character study full of both comedy and drama?
The film was one of Hughes’s last great accomplishments pulling triple duty as writer, director, and producer. After a string of 1980s youth classics like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Hughes decided to turn his storytelling away from high school characters and focus on middle-aged adults.
It would also mark his first of many holiday-based screenplays, preceding other notable holiday season installments National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and the remake of Miracle on 34th Street.
The screenplay for Planes, Trains & Automobiles encapsulates nearly everything that makes for a great holiday film — holiday themes of thankfulness and forgiveness, spirited atmosphere, lessons learned, and of course, plenty of conflict for the characters to overcome within those script elements.
Read ScreenCraft’s 7 Essential Ingredients to Writing a Successful Holiday Movie for more on that!
That’s why, to this day, the script still resonates with audiences — especially during the holidays. But beyond the context of holiday movies, here is a breakdown of how and why this script still brilliantly resonates with audiences.
The concept for the script and eventual film was simple:
Neal Page (Steve Martin) struggles to travel home for Thanksgiving with an obnoxious slob of a shower curtain ring salesman (John Candy) as his only companion.
Most people can instantly relate to this concept, which is the first factor that creates empathy for the characters. And empathy is the key component in most holiday scripts. In fact, it’s the key component to almost every successful script in the end.
More empathy is created when we see who this man has to deal with — that obnoxious person that most people have come across in their travels. The audience sympathizes with the man’s plight, but the script itself manages to flip that conventional comedic trope. For the benefit of all.
It’s a concept that generates instant sympathy for the character, instant audience recognition of the conflict, and instant tone and atmosphere due to the holiday setting.
The screenplay opens with the Title Card:
New York City
Two Days Before Thanksgiving
With just two lines, we are already introduced to the first conflict that Neal (Steve Martin) will have to struggle with. The following images are Neal looking at his watch after reviewing his upcoming flight times and then looking at his boss meticulously staring at ad designs while taking his sweet time trying to make a decision as the room full of ad executives hang on his every sound and word.
Tension is built within just a single page.
As he leaves the meeting room, he lays out the details of his trip with a coworker. This offers an opportunity for the script to introduce some plants for later payoffs.
His coworker asks why Neal won’t bump his flight from the 6pm to the 8pm so he can fly with him. The later payoff for that is evident in the concept, as we know that Neal will be forced to travel with an obnoxious stranger, as opposed to a good friend.
His coworker also says that he’ll never catch a cab at 6pm. Neal ignores the observation. The later payoff for that is Neal’s struggle to get a cab after he races a stranger (Kevin Bacon) for one, only to trip over a piece of enormous luggage and then almost get hit by a car. Then next to him, someone hails another cab and while he bribes that person for it, another stranger — who we later discover is Del (John Candy) — takes the cab from him.
Before Neal gets on the elevator, he remembers that he left his gloves in the meeting room. The elevator door has opened and because he is in such a rush, he asks his coworker to grab them for him. Neal says he won’t need the gloves because he’ll get off the elevator, into the cab, go into the airport, and be on the plane. The later payoff for that moment comes during Neal’s arduous and cold journey home.
As mentioned, Neal trips on a luggage chest and has his cab stolen from the owner of that chest. The later payoff is the introduction of the Del character.
These four key plants in the opening few pages of the screenplay have successfully thrust the story in motion, pushing the main character forward through conflict while setting a ticking time clock that will carry on throughout the screenplay — the rush to get home to his family for Thanksgiving.
Throughout the ongoing first act, the conflict continues to mount and mount and mount with flight delays and then his seat reassignment that lands him right next to Del, his now living worst nightmare. To make matters worse, their flight is rerouted from his destination of Chicago.
Before the flight and after the flight, we meet Neal’s family that awaits him back home. This injects the further need for Neal to get home and forces the audience to relate to that, given the holiday setting.
The script cuts to and from moments of Neal’s family waiting for him, adding to the ticking clock tension necessary to keep the momentum of the story going.
Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
The conflict never stops for Neal. He lost a cab, lost his first class seat on the plane, was forced to sit next to Del after an awkward exchange about the cab Del stole from him, lost his flight home as the plane is rerouted due to a snowstorm, can’t get a hotel room because everything is booked, etc. And this is all in the first ten pages of the screenplay.
As Neal is clearly stuck between a rock and a hard place, his only option is to accept Del’s invitation to accompany him to the hotel that he has already booked.
The conflict has only begun.
A ride into a horrible part of town in a terrible cab ensues, followed by the realization that only one room is available in the hotel, all of which leads Neal further and further into his traveling nightmare as he then learns that only one bed is available within that one shared room.
Del and Neal’s credit cards are switched, unbeknownst to them. The later payoff occurs when Neal’s credit card burns in the flaming car rental that Del has secured using Neal’s credit card. So not only is the card gone, but the car rental was under Neal’s name, making him liable for the damages — despite the fact that the fire was caused by Del’s cigarette.
While Neal is in the shower, Del is getting ready for bed. He looks at a framed picture of his wife. The later payoff is the reveal that Del’s wife has passed away, leaving him all by himself.
Additional moments of conflict ensue with hilarity.
Neal gets out of the shower to discover that Del has used all of the towels but one — a small hand towel.
Then the cringing conflict of Neal having to share the same bed with him further increases the tension.
As the story moves on, Neal and Del are faced with problem after problem, big and small. Almost every scene buries Neal deeper and deeper into the holiday season trip from hell. Their hotel room is broken into. Their money is gone. Del talks Neal into taking a train instead, but not before having to endure a horrible and cold ride in the back of a pickup truck. The train breaks down, leaving the passengers stranded in a Missouri field. After reaching Jefferson City, Del sells his remaining shower curtain rings to buy bus tickets, but neglects to tell Neal that they are only valid to St. Louis. Upon arrival, Neal again offends Del over lunch and the two part ways.
Neal tries to rent a car, but finds the space at the distant rental lot empty. He walks the long way back to the airport terminal in the cold. Fed up, Neal vents his anger towards the rental agent in one of the best parts of the screenplay and eventual film — allowing the audience to live vicariously through Neal, saying what they’d love to say in a similar situation but would never dare.
Needless to say, he won’t be able to rent another car.
He then attempts to hail a taxi to Chicago, but is attacked by a cab dispatcher after insulting him in frustration. Del arrives and saves Neal from further violence and also happens to have secured a car rental himself.
While driving, Del nearly gets them killed on a freeway after driving in the wrong direction, and driving between two semi-trailer trucks. Del’s carelessly discarded cigarette sets fire to the rental car.
Neal initially gloats over Del’s predicament, thinking that he is liable for the damage to the car. He’s thrilled to finally see Del experience the back end of his actions, which Neal has been taking ever since they met. His amusement turns to anger when Del reveals he used Neal’s credit card to rent the car after their cards were accidentally switched.
Neal sells his designer watch to a motel clerk to pay for a room for himself. Del is broke and attempts to sleep in the car, which has lost its roof in the fire. Neal eventually feels sympathy for Del and invites him in from the cold and snowy night. Neal relaxes as the two consume Del’s collection of airline liquors and laugh about the events of the past two days. The pair resume driving to Chicago the next morning, but their badly damaged car is impounded by the police. They finally make it to Chicago, two days late, in the back of a refrigerator truck.
When they finally go their separate ways, Neal realizes that Del’s cryptic comments about his wife are strange. He goes back to find Del sitting alone, hopeless. Del reveals that his wife has been dead for eight years and he doesn’t have a home. Neal invites his new friend to Thanksgiving dinner with him and his family.
While the script could have certainly went down the route of having Del as an antagonist with endless laughs, Hughes injected some heart instead. After Neal finally loses it and unleashes insults at Del, we’re given a moment where we finally feel empathy towards who we thought was going to be a mere antagonist. Del opens up and we instantly feel bad for even sympathizing with Neal and his reactions towards Del.
So now the script has given us two characters that we can empathize with.
The true brilliance of the script are the two characters that we follow through this ill-fated journey.
We at first are meant to look upon Neal as the flawless protagonist of the story, while Del is the annoying antagonist that gets in his way at every turn.
As the story unfolds, the layers of these characters are peeled away, creating an almost reverse effect.
We empathize with Del as we learn that Neal is showing his true colors. He’s rude, impatient, stuck-up, etc. Del slowly reveals himself to be lovable and charming. In essence, these two characters bring out both the best and the worst of each other. And that is why they have stood the test of time.
The Test of Time
Planes, Trains & Automobiles as a whole has stood the test of time thanks to an amazing screenplay by John Hughes — as well as the equally amazing performances of the two lead actors.
Let’s go back to the logline of the concept:
Neal Page struggles to travel home for Thanksgiving with an obnoxious slob of a shower curtain ring salesman as his only companion.
Had this concept originated today, it’s more than likely that the script would have been turned into something else more prevalent in today’s standards of comedy — hijinks. While there surely would have been the now clichéd heartwarming moments, a majority of the conflict would involve slapstick comedy and the reliance of the reaction of the straight man versus the funny man.
This film has stood the test of time in brilliant fashion because it wasn’t about the hijinks that ensued after the introduction of the concept. It was always about the characters.
From page one, we were catapulted into Neal’s dilemma. The script never wasted any time or pages with generic set-ups. The plants and payoffs were subtle. And they were always evident throughout the whole script in that fashion. And there was always a ticking clock as the audience and the characters anticipated Neal getting home for Thanksgiving to see his family.
The conflict was endless, leading to both laughs and drama. And always centered not on jokes and scenarios, but on these two very different characters peeling each other’s layers away — showing the good and bad for all to see. And audiences could relate because in the end, we’re all flawed, we all make mistakes, and we all struggle to overcome them, just like Neal and Del.
And that is why Planes, Trains & Automobiles stands the test of time and holds its place as a brilliant script come to life that we revisit each and every year.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies